Domestic Violence among Immigrant Women Essay

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Victims of domestic violence face a variety of complex legal and personal issues that can be further exacerbated by the pressures of immigration and cultural concerns. Battered immigrant women often feel isolated from their communities, both domestically and internationally. Moreover, foreign-born women are frequently uninformed about, unfamiliar with, or simply confused about their legal rights and the social services available to them in the United States. Unfortunately, too often both governmental and nongovernmental agencies that help to redress domestic violence are not prepared to meet the diverse needs of battered immigrant women. Many lack language accessibility, lack cultural sensitivity, and have insufficient information regarding the legal rights of battered immigrants.

Numerous factors influence a battered immigrant’s response to domestic violence. Some of these factors are as follows:

  • Immigration-related abuse/fear of deportation
  • Economic abuse
  • Concerns over loss of custody of her children
  • Language barriers
  • Cultural barriers

Immigration-Related Abuse/Fear Of Deportation

Immigration-related abuse plays upon the fact that the abuser may control whether or not his spouse attains legal immigration status in this country, whether any temporary legal immigration status she has may become permanent, and how long it may take her to become a naturalized citizen. The fear induced by immigration-related abuse makes it extremely difficult for a victim to leave her abuser, obtain a protection order, call the police for help, or participate in the abuser’s prosecution.

Fear of deportation is the principal barrier to immigrant victims’ seeking any type of aid after experiencing abuse. This fear affects both immigrant victims of domestic violence who have legal permission to live and work in the United States and those that are undocumented. As a result, many battered immigrants believe that they have no legal right to protection from their abuser. The threat of being turned over to the immigration authorities and subsequently placed in removal proceedings deters a battered immigrant woman from seeking help from police stations, shelters, counseling programs, and the courts.

Economic Abuse

Immigrant women residing with their abusers list “lack of money” as the main reason for remaining in abusive relationships. Research has found that over two thirds of battered immigrant women who stayed with their abusers reported a lack of money as the primary reason for not leaving their home. Economic abuse includes forcing the woman to work without documentation, preventing her from working, refusing to give her money, and refusing to pay her child support.

Concerns Over Loss Of Custody Of Children

Many battered immigrant women are the primary caretakers of their children and are concerned that if they leave their abusers, it will have a negative impact on their children. An immigrant woman may believe her abuser when he tells her that if she leaves him, he will receive custody of the children because he has secure immigration status and she does not. When an immigrant woman comes from a country that traditionally awards custody and control over children to their fathers, as a matter of law, she often believes her abuser’s threats that if she leaves him he will obtain custody of the children. This belief that they will lose custody to their abusers is heightened when victims are unfamiliar with the U.S. legal system, specifically the laws that require courts to look at domestic violence in custody cases and to protect victims regardless of their immigration status.

Language Barriers

Immigrant women who are unable to communicate effectively in the dominant language of the country in which they reside can face numerous barriers when trying to access help. Many have problems talking with police—police often believe abusers at the scene of a crime because only the abusers speak English. They can face barriers when trying to participate and understand court proceedings or when being involved in the legal system in any capacity. Furthermore, shelters, victim service programs, and legal service offices may not have employees who can speak an immigrant woman’s native language and may not provide interpreters. According to the Department of Justice, failure to ensure that limited English proficient (LEP) persons can participate in or benefit from federally assisted programs might be a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IV and the Title VI regulations against national and origin discrimination 67 Federal Regulation 41455, 21(2002). Additionally, if a battered immigrant woman needs to seek work, her ability to speak English can affect the types of employment she can obtain. These linguistic limitations can seriously harm a woman’s ability to respond to domestic violence.

Cultural Barriers

Like many victims of domestic violence, immigrant victims often look to their community for support. An immigrant woman can face unique challenges from her cultural community as she begins to explore addressing her abuser’s domestic violence. Her cultural or religious community may put a high value on marriage, so much so that she fears being held responsible for breaking up her family if she tries to escape. Many systems that are designed to help victims may seem inaccessible because they are not sensitive to a victim’s cultural needs. A shelter may not allow an immigrant victim to cook certain foods that would make her and her children feel more at home in a strange environment. Cultural considerations are essential when assisting immigrant victims, as they can help assuage feelings of isolation and ostracization from a victim’s cultural community.


  1. Dutton, M. A. (1996). Battered women’s strategic response to violence: The role of context. In J. L. Edelson & Z. C. Eisikovits (Eds.), Future interventions with battered women and their families (pp. 105–124). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  2. Dutton, M. A., Orloff, L., & Hass, G. (2002). Offering a helping hand. American University Journal of Gender, Social Policy, & the Law, 10(1), 95–183.
  3. Lai, T. A. (1986). Asian women restricting the violence. In M. C. Burns (Ed.), The speaking profits us: Violence in the lives of women of color (pp. 10–11). Seattle, WA: Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence.
  4. Orloff, L., & Sullivan, K. (Eds.). (2004). Breaking barriers: A complete guide to legal rights and resources for battered immigrants. Washington, DC: Legal Momentum.

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